18 April 2013

Grand Canyon R2R2R

“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked.” 
- Christopher McDougall

Photo: Doug Seaver
Distance: 46 miles 
Elevation: 11,000 ft
Time: 15:40

Brace yourselves. This is a long one.  

Running across the Grand Canyon is a top adventure run on any ultrarunner’s bucket list. After reading countless trip reports during the past year, the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim became the #1 run on mine. By a stroke of good fortune, I had the opportunity to join a group of runners this past weekend and fulfill this dream. 

I was invited by Steve and Deb Pero, who were running it along with Deb’s brother Drew and two other friends, Doug and Kevin. With the Quad Rock 50 coming up in 4 weeks, it was a good training run for a race of nearly the same distance and elevation gain.

After an all-day drive, I made it to the park just in time for a quick dinner with the gang before heading off to bed. We planned to meet up at 4am the next morning so we'd be done before dark. I was car camping at Mather CG, which I'd never done in my RAV4. Turned out to be pretty comfortable with the back seats turned down and our patio chair cushions underneath my sleeping bag. The only bad thing was the campfire smoke from my neighbors that kept me coughing until well after I was sealed up in my car. Otherwise, it suited me just fine for an $18 hotel room.

South Rim to Phantom Ranch

We met up at 4am and after a short run to the South Kaibab TH, took some pictures and we were off. Being a ridgeline trail, it was probably better that I didn't see the steep drop offs and focused on what was in front of me. There was quite a bit of fog that made it difficult to see with the headlamp, but within 30-45 min the sunlight began to rise on the horizon and we could begin to see the surrounding beauty. Headlamps were off about 30 min after that and the depth of the Canyon and what we were aiming to do came into view.
Photo: Steve Pero
1 hr and 15 minutes in
Black Bridge
The tunnel leading to the Black Bridge is so awesome to go through and come out of. I tried to capture it in this video:  

Crossing the mighty Colorado
Coming out of the darkness into this view was pretty spectacular. Crossing the Colorado River, we were about to begin our run across the Canyon -- woot woot! We passed the Bright Angel CG and shortly after came to Phantom Ranch, about an hour and 50 min after we started.  

Phantom Ranch to The Residence

For the next 14 miles we ran across the Canyon as we watched the morning sun spill its light on the Canyon walls. A treat I hadn't expected was the sound of rushing water through much of this section. The temps felt really good and the thermometer at Cottonwood CG read mid-60's.

L-R: Steve, Kevin, Doug, Deb and Drew
Lots of this going on

Photo: Steve Pero

Creek crossing / rock hopping  (Photo: Steve Pero)
Photo: Steve Pero

The Residence to the North Rim

Getting ready to climb...
This is where the real work begins. After filling up our bladders, hitting the restroom and getting our trekking poles out, we were off on a steep 5 mile climb up the North Kaibab trail. Deb set the pace, which I was able to hang on to until about half-way. 

I caught up with everyone again at the Supai Tunnel and after that, I was on my own until I reached the trailhead. I kept eating and drinking and my stomach felt fine, but just knowing that I had another long climb at the end kept me from pushing harder. I made it to the top around 7 hrs. My watch died just as I was about to take a snapshot of it.
Photo: Steve Pero

Photo: Steve Pero
Still smiling (Photo: Steve Pero)
Kevin and I (Photo: Steve Pero)
Looking back from whence we came...
...and again, just before arriving at the North Rim
Group shot at the North Kaibab TH

The North Rim to Phantom Ranch

With 21 miles done and 25 to go, we were not yet at the half-way point. I was a bit tired, but certainly could go downhill for 14 miles. There were two issues that I was dealing with at this point which were of greater concern. 

First, I had pain in my left kneecap, which flared up on the descents. It was tolerable, however. The bigger problem was that both of my big toenails were bruised, so anything other than flats and uphills were hurting worse than the knee. With the steep downhills slamming my toes into the toe box, I was reduced to a walk for the first few miles. Despite the Tylenol I took, it distracted me from enjoying the beauty on the return trip and made for a extended time on the trail. I took far fewer pictures at this point.
Supai Tunnel damage (Photo: Doug Seaver)

Got dropoffs? (Photo: Doug Seaver)
Coconino Overlook (Photo: Doug Seaver)
Photo: Steve Pero
Leaving the Residence (Photo: Steve Pero)
Photo: Doug Seaver
Photo: Steve Pero
Photo: Steve Pero
My feet felt fine on the flats and while the temps registered 85° at Cottonwood, there were strong spring winds to temper that. I was anxious to get to Phantom Ranch and get me some all-you-can-drink lemonade. When we arrived at 4:45, we found out they stopped serving it at 4pm. I wanted to go into the fetal position, thumb suck and all. Now I had a long hike out of the Canyon and no citrus-y sweet goodness to fuel it. Boo hiss.

Phantom Ranch to South Rim

"It was fun until it wasn't." - Deb

At this point, I was just ready to get it done. I was tired, sick of gels and ready for real food, but I wasn't sure just how long we had to the TH from there. The decision to do Bright Angel (less steep, but 2.5 miles longer than South Kaibab) was made the night before. I had brought enough to eat for 15 hours, but was doubting whether that was enough. I didn't know that we had almost 10 miles to go and I would be out there for another 5 hours... 
Silver Bridge (Photo: Doug Seaver)
Early evening glow
The trail wasn't steep but it seemed to go on forever. When we got to the Indian Garden campground, the sign informed us that we had 4.9 miles left to the trailhead. That sucked the wind out of my sails. I turned to Deb and said matter-of-factly, "I'm gonna bonk." I had one gel that I could tolerate and a sandwich that I couldn't. But we had to get going, so off we went.
Leaving Indian Springs
We were behind schedule so out came the headlamps again sometime between the CG and the 3 mile rest house. That was depressing, since we were planning to be done earlier. This is where I began to experience nausea and for the first time, threw up...twice. It's so delightful to hear yourself wretch and have it echo off the Canyon walls like a megaphone.   

So my first 40+ miler produces the first bonk & chunk-spewing. I'm pretty sure that Dante never ran an ultra or else he wouldn't have neglected the 10th Circle that I'm convinced I experienced those last three miles. I was telling myself that I never have to take another step on a trail ever again. I thought about pulling out of every race I had planned for 2013 and just getting myself a stupid little job to go to each day. Sheila would have to find another pacer for her hundos. You think crazy things when the wheels come off.  

Thank God for Deb, who walked with me those last few miles in the dark, holding my poles as I heaved, offering encouragement along the way. I was so sleepy -- I recall seeing tunnels one minute and then forgetting having gone through them the next. It was a hard, slow slog, but we finally made it around 10pm, I think. What a day. Hardest thing I've ever done. But I'm now a double-crossing ultrarunner, which is pretty cool.

Even with the painful second half and blowing up at the end, it was still an amazing run and an experience I'm grateful to have had. I've learned a lot of important lessons for my next 50-ish miler. I'm already looking forward to my next R2R2R run. Thanks to Steve, Deb, Drew, Doug and Kevin for letting me come along for the ride and for being such great trail mates. I look forward to seeing some of you again at Quad Rock and Hardrock for more smiles and trail adventures.

Stay tuned for my post on lessons learned... 

Happy Trails,



  1. Yep, it was ( almost) all fun and games. Doug and Drew both GPS'd it at 48 miles. A great day amd great training run.
    You forgot to me tion the scorpions, spiders ( complete with glowing eyes) centipedes, and bats that accompanied us those last few miles!

    1. I didn't see the first two, but now that you mention it, I do recall you saying something about bats during my bonk. You probably could have told me you saw a bear and I would have barely acknowledged it! Oh, the delirium...

  2. Good write-up and memory, Shelby. I think what will help you in training for these is to slow way down on your long training runs. If possible, get a HR monitor and keep it under 140 to teach your body to burn fat as fuel. I've been doing this for years (38?) and it's worked so far. No bonking, no puking (except after or during a race) ;-). You were a pleasure to have along, I wish you the best of luck in Quad Rock and your pacing this year...

    1. Grateful for the advise and yes, I'll be battling Deb for last place at Quad this year... :-) Had a great time running with you all and appreciate the food and hotel room after it was all done. Looking forward to seeing you all in a few weeks and gettin' it done at The Fort!

  3. Shelby,

    Great post! I read this today from the FTK website under the Grand Canyon section; quoting Dakota Jones, "2.) You're going to blow up on the ascent back to the South Rim. Stop deluding yourself - it's going to happen. You can't avoid it."

    For your first ~50 miler you chose a tough one. Congrats on completing it! Now you know you can do this distance. This is a fantastic achievement, celebrate in it!

    Hope to see you at Hardrock!

    1. Well, I glad to know that Prez expected me to blow up. That makes me feel better... :-)

      I look forward to seeing you a Hardrock. Hope you can get your training done with your work schedule and all. Fun running with you last weekend!

  4. BOOYAH!

    You really gotta try hammer nutrition products. I ran my first 50 miler (DNF'd at 42) with zero training other than a 10 mile run 2 weeks before. I attribute the fact that I made it as far as I did to hammer perpetuem, gels, and bars. Now with 2 official ultras behind me and several ultra distance training runs, I swear by the stuff. Not a gi issue yet!

    Can't wait to run with you this summer and trade stories.


    1. I'll get a chance to use Hammer gels at my 50k this Saturday. Good to hear you've had a good experience with them. That always helps to get a good referral before spending $$ on something you know nothing about.

      I love forward to talking shop and running some great trails with you in July!

  5. It's funny. As I watch you run these incredible runs I keep thinking: 1) Wow. Shelby's in awesome shape.
    2) She's nuts.
    3) If she can do this much running, I can do 13.1 miles soon.
    4) How do you have the time?!
    5) Wow.

    :) Congrats Shelby! Amazing feat. LOVE, love, LOVE the pictures.

    And Matt gets black toenails skiing every year. Maybe new shoes are needed?! xoxo

    1. I didn't realize that skiers get them too. Price you pay for all that fun, I suppose.

      Yes, you totally could do a half anytime. You could even do a marathon if you trade off walking and slow running. If you have the time, you can go pretty far with little training.

      But since you like to hike, I'd recommend you fast hike/run in the Whites and Greens, 'cause it would be prettier and easier on your joints! All I do is hike the hills and run the flats and downhills. Just like hiking, only faster!

  6. Anonymous4:07 PM

    Congrats on your R2R2R. I did it way back in the 80s in about 12 and a half hours with no gear/food to speak of...just some candy and bought a lemonade at P. Ranch. COuple of single crossings...and plan to go again next year at age 61. Special place it is!

  7. Ran across your blog as I was looking for info on this run. I'll be doing this one Mothers' Day wknd and it will be my longest run ever...definitely intimidating, but excited to experience it!!! Kudos to you for powering thru it and completing and amazing journey. I hope to do the same!!!
    Running Lizard

    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Debbie. Running across the Big Ditch is an amazing experience. Check out my follow up blog on my lessons learned to ensure that you're as prepared as possible. I used those lessons to run my first 50 miler a month later and it went great. Happy trails!